After a rough start with the EP-3 spy plane confrontation, the Bush administration forged a good relationship between the United States and China. Washington realized that it needed Beijing's help in dealing with North Korea, winning UN Security Council approval for U.S. objectives, and forging a profitable trading relationship.
The Obama administration risks getting off to an equally difficult start, though for different reasons. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocates "a comprehensive dialogue with China" and her visit to Beijing went smoothly, but of necessity little of substance was decided.
With economic fears rising and international trade declining, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is a convenient target for an administration inclined toward protectionism. Moreover, Democrats have more often emphasized human rights in American diplomacy, another point of controversy with the PRC. At the same time, conservative concerns over Beijing's rising geopolitical ambitions remain unabated, while the business community, which typically has supported expanded economic relations, has lost influence. The potential exists for a perfect political storm over China.
In the case of U.S.-China relations, the Obama administration should take the Hippocratic Oath as its basic objective: first do no harm. Whatever the day-to-day vagaries of bilateral ties, there is no more important long-term relationship. The United States continues to dominate international affairs as the globe's sole superpower, but China is the most significant rising power, with increasing regional and beginnings of global reach. The PRC's growing wealth enables Beijing to bolster commercial relationships in the Third World and enhance its military power at home.
The effects of this transformation are many. Perhaps the most important is that Washington is losing its ability to dictate to China.
For instance, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has charged China with "manipulating" its currency. Whether that is the case is a matter of dispute. However, both countries have much at stake in the bilateral economic relationship and are facing significant economic challenges. The Obama administration is in no position to make unilateral demands, especially since it expects China, which already owns $700 billion dollars in government securities-nearly a quarter of foreign holdings-to absorb much of the new borrowing by the U.S. Treasury this year. Sanctions would amount to economic mutual assured destruction, harming both nations in a downward retaliatory spiral.
So, too, with the issue of human rights. On such issues as religious liberty, freedom of speech and democratic elections, the gulf between America and the PRC is wide. Several human-rights groups recently wrote Secretary Clinton insisting that the United States tell Beijing that China's relationship with America "will depend in part on whether it lives by universally accepted human rights norms."
The temptation to insist on change is strong, but futile. The United States has moral right on its side and should demonstrate its commitment to human rights. Indeed, then-Senator Clinton urged President George W. Bush not to attend the Beijing Olympics to protest China's human-rights practices. However, Washington is in no position to force a proud government of a growing nation representing an ancient culture to transform itself. In moving beyond using the bully pulpit, Washington would find itself alone, abandoned by its Asian and European friends. And what would be its weapons, other than diplomatic huffing and puffing? Trade sanctions and military threats? For the United States to issue an ultimatum, especially in public, likely would result in a Chinese response in kind. The PRC is changing: reforms have begun and are likely to continue, but will have to be driven by domestic forces. Indeed, unrelated to American pressure, social unrest in China is severe and growing.
So Washington should exhibit humility about its ability to force change. As Secretary Clinton observed, "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere" with cooperation on other issues. Ultimately a positive relationship with Beijing is more likely to lead to a more liberal China. The result is not foreordained, but as always engagement offers the better bet. The United States shouldn't hesitate to promote its ideals, but it must recognize its limits in enforcing them.
Washington also should look on benignly as the PRC expands its commercial and diplomatic ties around the world. Even a sober military analyst like Tom Ricks of the Washington Post recently warned: "I am not sure what China is up to in Africa. But I have the nagging thought that we will figure it out in 15 years and be sorry."
Yet the United States and Soviet Union spent most of the cold war sparring for influence in the Third World to little meaningful effect. Money was spent and lives were lost, but in the end it didn't much matter who was numero uno in Vientiane, Kinshasa, Luanda or Managua. It matters even less today. As my Cato colleague Ben Friedman puts it, "There is little that China can do in Africa to make it stronger or to damage U.S. interests." If Beijing wishes to invest heavily in places with little geopolitical heft, why should the United States object?